Telegram Pushed War-Weary America into World War I

A British recruiting poster issued in the wake of the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915 was offered in a December 2016 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

World War I officially began in Europe on July 28, 1914, but the strong isolationist sentiment in the United States prevented our involvement for nearly three years. The U.S. economy was booming and the tragic events in Europe were broadly viewed as a “foreign affair,” 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and something to be avoided. Further, it had only been 51 years since our Civil War had ended, with General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. The United States had not fully recovered from a military readiness standpoint and another war would be hard to sustain. The rebuilding of the South simply added to the problem.

Then there were the American bankers, who would make massive loans to Great Britain and France that would produce a nice, steady stream of profits. They were more than content to stay on the sidelines as long as their capital seemed secure. Show me a war and I will bet there are always groups profiting from making the bullets and bombs that create jobs. Other industries like steel or food production generally end up on the positive side of the export equation. Twenty-five years later, gearing up for World War II would help the country break the grip of the Great Depression. (Our military budget is currently over $700 billion … and growing.)

Another important factor were the immigrants in the United States, whose support was dependent on their country of origin. Most had left behind family and friends who would end up in harm’s way if America escalated the war. Naturally, there were also the permanent peaceniks like the Quakers and other religious groups who were simply pacifists by virtue of their beliefs. Two million socialists could be lumped into this group, as well as numerous women’s organizations.

The 8 million German-Americans had little loyalty to Germany, and were surprisingly neutral in addition to being strongly against any war, especially if it involved Germany. Their primary concern if the United States entered the war revolved around the reprisals against them as questions about their allegiance to America were already at a simmering level. This apprehension had been growing since the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania and German U-boats sank six American merchant ships, including the Housatonic – all without any warning.

On Nov. 7, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected on an anti-war platform and a campaign slogan of “He kept us out of war” (note the past tense). He had defeated Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes Sr. by dominating the Southern vote and in the run-up to the election knew it would be a competitive battle. With a war raging in Europe, Wilson was concerned that if he lost, he would be a lame-duck president for four long months. He devised a clever plan that involved making Hughes the Secretary of State and then he and Vice President Thomas R. Marshall would immediately resign and Hughes would become president, as the rules of succession applied at that time.

Wilson was the first sitting Democratic president to win re-election since Andrew Jackson in 1832. Six months later, we would be in World War I due to a quirk of fate or a German blunder: the Zimmermann Telegram.

In January 1917, a coded message was sent from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Germany’s Ambassador to Mexico that was to be relayed to Mexican President Venustiano Carranza. “We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor to keep the United States neutral … If not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal on the following basis; make war together, make peace together, generous financial support … Mexico is to re-conquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The settlement detail is left to you.”

On Feb. 1, 1917, Germany began unrestricted U-boat warfare in the Atlantic. U.S. ships came under attack and the USA broke off diplomatic relations with Germany.

March 1, President Wilson authorized the State Department publication of the Zimmermann Telegram in the press and, as intended, it inflamed American public opinion against Germany.

April 2: Wilson addressed a special session of Congress to declare war.

April 4: Senate approved 82-6 (the House concurred 373-50).

April 6: Wilson signed a formal declaration of war on Germany.

And so war came again to America despite the reluctance of many people.

BTW: On April 14, after the formal declaration of war, President Carranza formally declined the German proposal. It is interesting to speculate on the outcome if the decision had been in the affirmative. I suspect we might have ended up with a few more stars on the flag.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

McKinley Skillfully Assumed More Presidential Power

This William McKinley political poster, dated 1900, sold for $6,875 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

William McKinley was 54 years old at the time of his first inauguration in 1897. The Republicans had selected him as their nominee at the St. Louis convention on the first ballot on June 16, 1896. He had spent several years as an effective congressional representative and more recently the 39th governor of Ohio. Importantly, he had the backing of a shrewd manager, Mark Hanna, and the promise of what turned out to be the largest campaign fund in history – $3.5 million – largely by describing the campaign as a crusade of the working man versus the rich, who had impoverished the poor by limiting the money supply.

In the 1896 election, he defeated a remarkable 36-year-old orator, William Jennings Bryan, perhaps the most talented public speaker who ever ran for any office. McKinley wisely decided he could not compete against Bryan in a national campaign filled with political speeches. He adopted a novel “front porch” campaign that resulted in trainloads of voters arriving at his home in Canton, Ohio.

Bryan would lose again to McKinley in 1900, ducked Teddy Roosevelt in 1904, and then lose a third time in 1908 against William Howard Taft. The three-time Democratic nominee did serve two years as secretary of state for Woodrow Wilson (1913-15) and then died five days after the end of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.

William and Ida McKinley followed Grover and Frances Cleveland into the White House after Cleveland’s non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th president. Cleveland’s second term began with a disaster – the Panic of 1893 – when stock prices declined, 500 banks closed, 15,000 businesses failed and unemployment skyrocketed. This significant depression lasted all four years of his term in office and Cleveland, a Democrat, got most of the blame.

His excuse was the 1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which required the Treasury to buy any silver offered using notes backed by silver or gold. An enormous over-production of silver by Western mines forced the Treasury to borrow $65 million in gold from J.P. Morgan and the Rothschild family in England. Since Cleveland had been unable to turn the economy around, it virtually ruined the Democratic Party and created the era of Republican domination from 1861 to 1933, with only Woodrow Wilson winning in 1912 when squabbling between Roosevelt and Taft split the vote three ways.

It’s common knowledge that McKinley was assassinated in 1901 after winning re-election in 1900, but there’s little attention paid to the time he spent in office beginning in 1897. 1898 got off to a wobbly start when his mother died, leading to a full 30 days of mourning that canceled an important diplomatic New Year’s celebration. Tensions between the United States and Spain over Cuba had electrified the diplomatic community and it was hoped that a White House reception would have provided a convenient venue to discuss strategic options.

Spain had mistreated Cuba since Columbus discovered it in 1492 and in 1895, it suspended the constitutional rights of the Cuban people following numerous internal revolutions. Once again, the countryside raged with bloody guerilla warfare; 200,000 Spanish troops were busy suppressing the insurgents and cruelly governing the peasant population. American newspapers horrified the public with details that offended their sense of justice and prompted calls for U.S. intervention. Talk of war with Spain was in the air again.

On Feb. 9, two days before a reception to honor the U.S. Army and Navy, the New York Journal published a front-page article revealing the details of a Spanish diplomat denouncing McKinley as a weakling, “a mere bidder for the admiration of the crowd.” The same day, the Spanish minister in Washington retrieved his passport from the State Department and boarded a train to Canada.

A rapid series of events led to war with Spain, including $50 million that Congress placed at the disposal of the president to be used for defense of the country, with no conditions attached. McKinley was wary of war due to his experience in the Civil War, but he carefully discussed the issue with his Cabinet and key senators to ensure concurrence. This was the first significant step to war and ultimately the transformation of presidential power. On April 25, Congress formally declared war on Spain and the actual landing of forces took place on June 6, when 100 Marines went ashore at Guantanamo Bay.

McKinley’s skillful assumption of authority during the Spanish-American War subtly changed the presidency, as Professor Woodrow Wilson of Princeton University wrote: “The president of the United States is now … at the front of affairs as no president since Lincoln has been since the start of the 19th century.” Those who followed McKinley into the White House would develop and expand these new powers of the presidency … starting with his vice president and successor Theodore Roosevelt, who had eagerly participated in the war with Spain with his “Rough Riders at San Juan Hill.”

We see their fingerprints throughout the 20th century and even today as the concept of formal declarations of war has become murky. Urgency has gradually eroded the power enumerated to Congress and there is almost always “no time to wait for an impotent Congress to resolve their partisan differences.”

The Founding Fathers would be surprised at how far the pendulum has swung.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Tremendous Challenges Awaited the Plainspoken Truman

Fewer than 10 examples of this Harry Truman “60 Million People Working” political pin are known to exist. This pin sold for $19,717 at an August 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Harry Truman became the seventh vice president to move into the Oval Office after the death of a president. Truman had been born during the White House years of Chester Arthur, who had followed James Garfield after his assassination (1881). And in Truman’s lifetime, Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge had ascended to the presidency after the deaths of William McKinley (1901) and Warren Harding (1923). However, none of these men had been faced with the challenges awaiting the plainspoken Truman.

FDR had been a towering figure for 12 years, first leading the country out of the Great Depression and then deftly steering the United States into World War II after being elected a record four times. Unfortunately, Truman had not been involved in several important decisions, and was totally unaware of several strategic secrets (e.g. the development of the atom bomb) or even side agreements made with others, notably Winston Churchill. He was not prepared to be president.

Even the presidents who preceded FDR tended to exaggerate the gap in Truman’s foreign-relations experience. Woodrow Wilson was a brilliant academic and Herbert Hoover was a world-famous engineer. There were enormously important decisions to be made that would shape the world for the next half century. Even Truman had his sincere doubts about being able to follow FDR, despite the president’s rapidly failing health.

The significance of these decisions has gradually faded, but for Truman, they were foisted upon him in rapid order: April 12, FDR’s death; April 28, Benito Mussolini killed by partisan Italians; two days later Adolf Hitler committed suicide; and on April 29, German military forces surrendered. The news from the Pacific was equally dramatic as troop landings on the critical island of Okinawa had apparently been unopposed by the Japanese. It was clearly the apex of optimism regarding the prospects for an unconditional surrender by Japan and the welcomed return of world peace.

In fact, it was a miracle that turned out to be a mirage.

After victory in Europe (V-E Day), Truman was faced with an immediate challenge regarding the 3 million troops in Europe. FDR and Churchill did not trust Joseph Stalin and were wary of what the Russians would do if we started withdrawing our troops. Churchill proved to be right about Russian motives, as they secretly intended to continue to permanently occupy the whole of Eastern Europe and expand into adjacent territories at will.

Then the U.S. government issued a report stating that the domestic economy could make a smooth transition to pre-war normalcy once the voracious demands from the military war-machine abated. Naturally, the war-weary public strongly supported “bringing the boys home,” but Truman knew that Japan would have to be forced to quit before any shifts in troops or production could start.

There was also a complex scheme under way to redeploy the troops from Europe to the Pacific if the Japanese decided to fight on to defend their sacred homeland. It was a task that George Marshall would call “the greatest administrative and logistical problem in the history of the world.”

Truman pondered in a diary entry: “I have to decide the Japanese strategy – shall we invade proper or shall we bomb and blockade? That is my hardest decision to date.” (No mention was made of “the other option.”)

The battle on Okinawa answered the question. Hundreds of Japanese suicide planes had a devastating effect. Even after 10 days of heavy sea and air bombardment on the island; 30 U.S ships sunk, 300 more damaged; 12,000 Americans killed; 36,000 wounded. It was now obvious that Japan would defend every single island, regardless of their losses. Surrender would not occur and America’s losses would be extreme.

So President Truman made a historic decision that is still being debated today: Drop the atomic bomb on Japan and assume that the effect would be so dramatic that the Japanese would immediately surrender. On Aug. 6, 1945, “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima with devastating effects. Surprisingly, the Japanese maintained their silence, perhaps not even considering that there could be a second bomb. That second bomb – a plutonium variety nicknamed “Fat Man” – was then dropped two days ahead of schedule on Aug. 9 on the seaport city of Nagasaki.

No meeting had been held and there was no second order given (other than by Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets). The directive that had ordered the first bomb simply said in paragraph two that “additional bombs will be delivered AS MADE READY.” However, two is all that was needed. Imperial Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, thus ending one of history’s greatest wars.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

How Far Will We Go In Amending American History?

A collection of items related to the dedication of the Washington Monument went to auction in May 2011.

By Jim O’Neal

Four years ago, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray starred in a movie titled The Monuments Men, about a group of almost 400 specialists who were commissioned to try and retrieve monuments, manuscripts and artwork that had been looted in World War II.

The Germans were especially infamous for this and literally shipped long strings of railroad cars from all over Europe to German generals in Berlin. While they occupied Paris, they almost stripped the city of its fabled art collections by the world’s greatest artists. Small stashes of hidden art hoards are still being discovered yet today.

In the United States, another generation of anti-slavery groups are doing the exact opposite: lobbying to have statues and monuments removed, destroyed or relocated to obscure museums to gather dust out of the public eyes. Civil War flags and memorabilia on display were among the first to disappear, followed by Southern generals and others associated with the war. Now, streets and schools are being renamed. Slavery has understandably been the reason for the zeal to erase the past, but it sometimes appears the effort is slowly moving up the food chain.

More prominent names like President Woodrow Wilson have been targeted and for several years Princeton University has been protested because of the way it still honors Wilson, asserting he was a Virginia racist. Last year, Yale removed John C. Calhoun’s name from one of its residential colleges because he was one of the more vocal advocates of slavery, opening the path to the Civil War by supporting states’ rights to decide the slavery issue in South Carolina (which is an unquestionable fact). Dallas finally got around to removing some prominent Robert E. Lee statues, although one of the forklifts broke in the process.

Personally, I don’t object to any of this, especially if it helps to reunite America. So many different things seem to end up dividing us even further and this only weakens the United States (“United we stand, divided we fall”).

However, I hope to still be around if (when?) we erase Thomas Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence and are only left with George Washington and his extensive slavery practices (John Adams did not own slaves and Massachusetts was probably the first state to outlaw it).

It would seem to be relatively easy to change Mount Vernon or re-Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital. But the Washington Monument may be an engineering nightmare. The Continental Congress proposed a monument to the Father of Our Country in 1783, even before the treaty conferring American independence was received. It was to honor his role as commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War. But when Washington became president, he canceled it since he didn’t believe public money should be used for such honors. (If only that ethos was still around.)

But the idea for a monument resurfaced on the centennial of Washington’s birthday in 1832 (Washington died in 1799). A private group, the Washington National Monument Society – headed by Chief Justice John Marshall – was formed to solicit contributions. However, they were not sophisticated fundraisers since they limited gifts to $1 per person a year. (These were obviously very different times.) This restriction was exacerbated by the economic depression that gripped the country in 1832. This resulted in the cornerstone being delayed until July 4, 1848. An obscure congressman by the name of Abraham Lincoln was in the cheering crowd.

Even by the start of the Civil War 13 years later, the unsightly stump was still only 170 feet high, a far cry from the 600 feet originality projected. Mark Twain joined in the chorus of critics: “It has the aspect of a chimney with the top broken off … It is an eyesore to the people. It ought to be either pulled down or built up and finished,” Finally, President Ulysses S. Grant got Congress to appropriate the money and it was started again and ultimately opened in 1888. At the time, it was 555 feet tall and the tallest building in the world … a record that was eclipsed the following year when the Eiffel Tower was completed.

For me, it’s an impressive structure, with its sleek marble silhouette. I’m an admirer of the simplicity of plain, unadorned obelisks, since there are so few of them (only two in Maryland that I’m aware of). I realize others consider it on a par with a stalk of asparagus, but I’m proud to think of George Washington every time I see it.

Even so, if someday someone thinks it should be dismantled as the last symbol of a different period, they will be disappointed when they learn of all the other cities, highways, lakes, mountains and even a state that remain to go. Perhaps we can find a better use for all of that passion, energy and commitment and start rebuilding a crumbling infrastructure so in need of repairs. One can only hope.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Lincoln Understood Technology and Adapted

This photograph of Abraham Lincoln was among 348 Civil War albumen images in a collection that sold for $83,650 at a December 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Presidents have always been challenged to communicate their policies and priorities to the public. As the political party system evolved, newspapers became more partisan depending on their level of editorial bias – usually due to strong-willed owners/editors – forcing administrations to devise creative ways to deliver unfiltered messages.

In the 20th century, President Wilson established the first presidential press conference in March 1913. All of his predecessors have continued using this innovation with only minor variants. FDR used “Fireside Chats” to help ease public concerns during the Great Depression, using bromides like, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” or explaining how the banking system works to restore confidence in the financial system.

President Eisenhower preferred off-the-record sessions with reporters and heavily edited film clips.

Then by 1960, with 87 percent of households having televisions, people could tune in twice a month and see the young, telegenic JFK – live and uncut – deliver his aggressive agenda for America. Up until then, press conferences were strictly off the record to provide the opportunity to correct any gaffes or poorly phrased answers to difficult questions. President Truman once told reporters “the greatest asset the Kremlin has is Senator [Joe] McCarthy” … but the quote was reworded before being released!

President Trump has adopted modern technology to bypass the media and communicate directly to anyone interested (which includes his base and the frustrated media). Daily WH briefings have become increasingly adversarial as many in the media are in various stages of open warfare, especially The New York Times and CNN. The 24/7 news cycle allows viewers to choose media that are consistent with their personal opinions and the result is a giant echo-sphere.

In the 19th century, President Lincoln was often confronted with extreme press hostility, especially by the three large newspapers in NYC, which attacked him personally and for his failing Civil War policies, particularly after the Civil War Draft Riots. Lincoln retaliated with dramatic letters in 1862-63 – ostensibly to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, but also strategically to all newspapers to reach a far wider audience. At the very least, he reduced editorial influence and in doing so revolutionized the art of presidential communications.

And then it was suddenly Nov. 19, 1863, at Gettysburg, Pa. What Lincoln said that day has been analyzed, memorized and explained … but never emulated. The only flaw was the prediction that “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here …”

The compactness and concision of the Gettysburg Address have something to do with the mystery of its memorability. It was 271 words. It had 10 sentences, the final one accounting for a third of the entire length; 205 words had a single syllable; 46 had two; 20 had three syllables or more. The pronoun “I” was never uttered. Lincoln had admired and seen at once the future of the telegraph, which required one to get to the point, with clarity. The telegraphic quality can be clearly heard in the speech – “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” Rhythm, compression, precision … all were emphasized.

Perhaps the most overshadowed speech in history was the one featured as the main event that day: Edward Everett’s oration. He was a Harvard man (later its president), a professor of Greek, governor of Massachusetts, and ambassador to England. Everett’s two-hour speech (13,607 words) was well received. Lincoln congratulated him.

Afterward, in a note to Lincoln, Everett wrote: “I should be glad to flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln’s grateful reply concluded with “I am pleased to know that in your judgment, the little I did say was not a failure.”

Not bad for a man traveling with the fever of a smallpox infection! 

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Taxing the Rich Never Seems to Quite Cure Society’s Ills

This 1920 President Wilson gold coin, struck to commemorate the July 16, 1920, opening of the Manila Mint, sold for $69,000 at an April 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

 

In 1913, after nearly 16 years in the political wilderness, Democrats eagerly seized control of Congress, with Thomas Woodrow Wilson as their leader. They were more than jubilant to once again have a Southern president, but to their disappointment, the president ordered that celebrations be kept to a minimum. He proceeded to deliver a brief inaugural address, canceled the inaugural ball, and stoically suffered the inaugural parade.

 

By promising “to cleanse, to reconsider, to restore” after many years of perceived misrule, he was committed to an agenda that historian John Morton Blum called “the politics of morality.” This would shape his presidency from its brilliant launch to its disappointing crash-landing.

 

Under the 1912 campaign slogan of “New Freedom” lurked the greatest wave of social legislation Americans would ever experience. Wilson, ever the political scientist, likened it to the use of Hamiltonian strong-central government to achieve Jeffersonian ideals of egalitarianism. What Wilson envisioned was the creation of a new federally regulated banking system, lower tariffs on imports, aggressive new policies to curtail business collusion, and imposition of an income tax made possible by the new 16th Amendment to the Constitution. He firmly believed the federal government needed to slow corporate wealth and aggressively help ordinary men and women – the backbone of the American system – and he wasted no time in getting started.

 

The day after his inauguration, he personally convened a special session of Congress, the first presidential appearance in the Capitol since the days of Thomas Jefferson. Thus began a historic assault on the tariff system because “it was a general tax on the entire population for the benefit of private industry.” This was followed by the Federal Reserve Act, Federal Trade Commission Act, Clayton Antitrust Act, and the Federal Farm Loan Act.

 

The other highly contentious issue would be an income tax, missing since it was dropped in 1872 after the Civil War. However, it was now viewed as an absolute necessity to plug the loss of tariff revenue ($100 million), grow the federal government, and redistribute the wealth of Americans in a way that would be more fair and equitable (i.e., the “surplus” income of rich Americans over and above the amount necessary for “good living”).

 

This culminated in the Revenue Act of 1913, which imposed a graduated income tax (collected by employers) and a reduction in tariffs from 40 percent to 25 percent. President Wilson signed it into law on Oct. 3, 1913. The reformers were now ready to start building on their accomplishments and the newly established teamwork between Congress and the White House.

 

Then on June 28, 1914, a shot rang out in Sarajevo and an archduke was dead.

 

Few wars have transformed belligerent countries as extensively as World War I. It overturned social, economic and cultural order in Europe, Russia and beyond. It also transformed the American economic system, as the cost to the U.S. was $50 billion and the federal budget grew from $742 million in 1916 to $14 billion in 1918. Before WWI, more than 90 percent of federal revenues came from excise taxes and tariffs. Now, the income tax played a central role in revenues and would continue to increase in importance for the next 100-plus years. Today, over 80 percent of federal revenues come from income taxes and associated payroll taxes … and inequality has grown much worse.

 

For some reason, the “tax the rich” approach never seems to quite cure society’s ills.

 

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Best Way to Revamp Income Tax Might Be a Do-Over

A 1917 World Series Program, featuring President Woodrow Wilson on the cover, sold for $4,800 at a May 2017 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1912, after 16 years in the wilderness, Democrats seized control of Congress and the White House, with Woodrow Wilson as their leader. To their disappointment, the new president kept celebrations to a minimum. He delivered a brief inaugural address on March 4, 1913, canceled the inaugural ball, and reviewed the parade with stoic forbearance. This is not a day of triumph, he declared, but a day of dedication. And it was a day to muster the forces of humanity, not the forces of party.

Wilson went on to produce the greatest outpouring of social legislation Americans had ever experienced, during a brief period when the ruling class would use Hamiltonian means of a strong federal government to bring about Jeffersonian ideals of egalitarianism. His presidency would transform the American banking and currency system, create new industrial and farm policies, and expand the protection of America’s natural resources. But the first accomplishment was lowering tariffs and enacting an income tax – reforms aimed directly at middle-class pocketbooks.

Wilson and his associates sincerely believed that the federal government needed to serve as a counterweight to corporate wealth and an aggressive agent to help ordinary citizens. Wilson’s legacy is often cited as a fateful turning point when “do-gooders” harnessed the income tax to both raise revenues to grow government and to redistribute the wealth of Americans in a way they viewed as more fair. Yet at the outset, no one could foresee that war, not social justice, would start an inexorable rise in taxes that would thwart all the moral absolutism dreamed about.

Starting the day after his inauguration, Wilson called Congress into an extraordinary session for a historic assault on the tariff system by delivering his message personally in the first presidential appearance inside the Capitol since the days of President Jefferson. Although he recognized the challenge he faced due to conservative committee barons who dominated Congress, despite being Democrats, Wilson stood with his progressives and intended to use his executive power to the fullest. By September, the Senate actually passed a tariff bill that helped consumers … a historical first.

However, there was the small issue of how to plug the $100 million loss of revenue that was created. And so we now meet the federal income tax, which turned employers into tax collectors. New York’s The Sun summed up the opposition by arguing that income taxes were repugnant except in times of great national emergency and charged “it amounted to taxation of the few for the benefit of the many.” Advocates claimed it was merely a way to tap the “surplus” income of the rich – “over and above the amount necessary for good living.”

On May 8, 1913, the House approved the first income tax that would actually take effect since 1872, when Congress repealed Civil War-era taxes. But the Senate disagreed, with some senators opposing the “confiscation of property under the guise of taxation” and others saying “No honest man can make war upon great fortunes per se.” The war of words continued until a law was passed that affected fewer than 4 percent of Americans, with working-class people virtually excluded. A 1 percent rate on $20,000-$50,000 graduated up to 6 percent on $500,000 and above. There was also a 1 percent flat tax on corporations.

After two years, everyone seemed angry at Wilson for doing either too much or too little. Feeling besieged, he entertained a fantasy of putting on a beard and sneaking out of the White House prison, or putting a sign in front of his office: “Don’t shoot! He’s doing his best.” The reform agenda was mobilizing to act when…

In June, a shot rang out at Sarajevo.

World War I would eventually cost the United States $50 billion and the federal budget grew from $742 million in 1916 to nearly $14 billion in 1918. Excise taxes and tariffs had been providing 90 percent of federal revenue and this was limited. What to do?

Thus started the long story of the U.S. income tax, which at one point grew to 90 percent and has become so complex not even the IRS knows with certainty what lurks on all 50,000 pages of highly technical jargon (or even if 50,000 pages is accurate!). It grows each day … as does the debt that is back in the news.

My recommendation to President Trump is to simply start over, since every effort to reform only adds more pages and complexity. Take a blank piece of paper and write down “Need 18 to 20 percent of GDP to run federal government. Question: What is the best way to get this money and do the least damage in the process?” Answer: Find three smart people to figure it out, then just do it … fast.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Labor Secretary Perkins Did Her Part to Make Sure Social Security Endures

A Feb. 27, 1935, memo by President Roosevelt to Francis Perkins regarding Social Security went to auction in December 2008.

By Jim O’Neal

President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt created the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor on Feb. 14, 1903. It was renamed the Department of Commerce in 1913 and various bureaus and agencies specializing in labor were shifted to a new Department of Labor.

Until 1920, women were prohibited from having Cabinet-level positions since they were not allowed to vote. President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke this barrier in 1933 by appointing Francis Perkins as Secretary of Labor. She was instrumental in aligning labor with the New Deal.

The New Deal was a complex integrated plan to provide present relief, future stability and permanent security in the United States. Much of the president’s thinking about security – which would soon come to be called “social security” – rested on a premise that overcompetition in the labor market depressed wages, spread misery rather than income, curtailed the economy and worked special hardship on the elderly.

Roosevelt was determined to find a way to “dispose of surplus workers,” in particular those over the age of 65. The federal government could provide immediate relief to able-bodied workers as the employer of last resort, while returning welfare functions to the states. Unemployment insurance would relieve damage from economic downturns by sustaining workers’ living standards, and removing older workers (permanently) through government paid old-age pensions would create broad economic stability.

The longer-term features of Roosevelt’s grand design were incorporated into a landmark measure whose legacy endured and reshaped the texture of American life: the Social Security Act. No other New Deal measure proved more lastingly consequential or is more emblematic of the very essence of the New Deal. No one was better prepared to thread the needle of the tortuous legislative process than Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins and FDR personally assigned her the task of chairing a Cabinet committee to prepare the legislation for submission to Congress.

Madame Secretary (as she preferred to be called) brought to her task the commonsense practicality of her New England forebearers; compassion of the special milieu from her time at social-work pioneer Jane Addams’ Hull House; and a dose of political expertise gained as a labor lobbyist and industrial commissioner in New York. Perkins had evolved from a romantic Mount Holyoke College graduate, who tried to sell “true love” stories to pulp magazines, into a mature, deadly serious battler for the underprivileged.

She owed her position to a comrade-in-arms relationship with New York Governor Al Smith and FDR in New York reform battles and also the spreading influence of an organized women’s faction in the Democratic Party. She wisely believed that enlightened middle-class reformers could do more for themselves through tough legislation than union organization; and without the distraction of industrial conflict and social disruption.

Meanwhile, the American labor movement, led by the stubborn Samuel Gompers, relied exclusively on protection of labor’s right to organize. Even after his death, his American Federation of Labor (AFL) spurned legislation and continued to bargain piecemeal, union by union, shop by shop … a strategy that collapsed as the depression deepened.

We know how this ended on Jan. 17, 1935, when President Roosevelt unveiled his Social Security program. Today, 61 million people – or one family in four – receive benefits. However, there is no “lockbox” for Social Security and the flow of taxes and benefit payments are co-mingled with all General Obligations; which includes Medicare, military spending, food stamps and foreign aid. Everything is dependent on the federal government’s ability to levy taxes and borrow money to fund the unsustainable debts backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States.”

Some say that when it comes to global sovereign debt, we live in the best house on Bankrupt Street. However, I am willing to bet that FDR’s cherished Social Security program will never be touched. Francis Perkins did a superb job of getting this concept engrained in a special way and she must still be smiling. She liked her work and served for 12 years and one month – almost a record. James “Tama Jim” Wilson holds that distinction, serving as Secretary of Agricultural from 1897 to 1913, the only Cabinet member to serve under four consecutive presidents, counting the one day he served under Woodrow Wilson.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Andrew Johnson Narrowly Escaped Removal From Office

A cotton bandanna made to celebrate the end of the Civil War, featuring President Andrew Johnson, sold for $9,375 at a November 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Andrew Johnson was Abraham Lincoln’s second vice president after they won the 1864 election running on the National Union Party ticket (a one-time name change for the Republicans).

After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson was drunk at his own inauguration and later was the first U.S. president to be impeached. He was acquitted in the Senate by a single vote.

A classic Southern slavery advocate, Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate after his presidency (a first).

This William Howard Taft and James Sherman jugate pocket mirror sold for $2,629.

James “Sunny Jim” Sherman was vice president No. 27 under William Howard Taft. He was the first VP to throw the first pitch on baseball’s opening day, and the last VP to die in office.

His death right after the convention on Oct. 30, 1912, didn’t give Taft a chance to select an alternate so Taft campaigned alone (finishing a weak third despite being the incumbent president). Taft and Theodore Roosevelt (who was attempting to make a comeback) split the vote, giving Woodrow Wilson the win.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for the WH five times (for VP in 1920) and was successful four times. His mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, was the first woman to cast a vote for a son in a presidential election (1920).

Roosevelt famously had White House matchbooks printed with “Stolen from the White House,” perhaps to cut down on souvenir-seeking guests.

Levi Parsons Morton, the 22nd vice president, missed the chance to be president when he declined James Garfield’s offer to be his running mate in 1880.

Garfield then turned to Chester Arthur, who accepted and became president upon Garfield’s assassination in 1881.

After his term as VP, Morton became the only one to then become a governor (of New York). He lived exactly 96 years – dying on his birthday in 1920 (another first and only).

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Fairbanks Never Won the Presidency, But there is That City…

A rare 1904 Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Fairbanks jugate (with a cartoon image by the creator of the Teddy Bear, Clifford Berryman) sold for $8,050 at a June 2005 auction.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” – Prince Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet

By Jim O’Neal

Charles W. Fairbanks gave the keynote address at the June 1896 Republican Convention in St. Louis. Following the successful nomination and election of former Governor William McKinley of Ohio, Fairbanks became a U.S. Senator from Indiana.

When 1900 rolled around, Mark Hanna – one of the earliest “kingmakers” in American politics – tried to persuade Fairbanks to run as McKinley’s vice president (Vice President Garret Hobart had died in office). But, Fairbanks thought he had a better chance to become president by staying in the Senate.

Bad decision.

McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became president. Fairbanks recognized his earlier lost opportunity, so in 1904, he accepted the vice presidency with TR in the hope that his shot at the presidency would come in 1908.

Wrong again.

Roosevelt threw his support to friend and colleague William Howard Taft and that squashed Fairbank’s aspirations once again.

Now flash forward eight years to 1916, and we find our old friend Fairbanks running for vice president again, this time with former Governor Charles E. Hughes of New York. Alas, Woodrow Wilson was reelected and Fairbanks finally just gave up.

However, he does have a major city named for him, albeit few people can find it on a map.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].